Yesterday afternoon I was oh, so deeply saddened to learn of a tragic blot, nay, a substantial stain on the escutcheon of my once-beloved alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I barely know how to describe my horror myself, so let me go ahead and provide the context. We alumni received an email from L. Rafael Reif, the president of MIT.
It read thusly (edited down for space):
"To the members of the MIT community:
At MIT, we face facts, and we turn passionately toward the future.
Today, however, we must attend to some newly uncovered facts from our
A distinguished member of our history faculty, Professor Craig Steven Wilder is the leading authority
on how the emergence and growth of American colleges and universities
is entwined with the history of slavery. Last spring, I sought Craig's
advice on how MIT could best explore its historical connections in this
realm. Based on our conversation, [we elected] to develop an ongoing undergraduate
primary-research course, to be called "MIT and Slavery."
Led by Professor Wilder and MIT's archivist for researcher services Nora
Murphy, the class began last fall, meeting in the MIT archives. In
December, the students presented to me what they have discovered so far.
Already, they have uncovered a range of evidence showing how MIT's early
decades were shaped by the post-Civil War process of reconstruction,
from MIT-trained engineers rebuilding the South's war-torn railroads to
our links to many industries, from mining to textiles, that had depended
directly or indirectly on labor from enslaved people. The students also
found evidence of how the ugly racial attitudes of the day played out
in student publications and even aspects of the curriculum. Perhaps the
most jarring finding: an 1850 Virginia census document, which shows that
before [MIT founder] William Barton Rogers moved to Boston to found MIT, he and his
wife, Emma, held six human beings as slaves.
have already seen a range of reactions to and feelings about this news ... I am certain that we have nothing to fear
from examining our past; understanding it better can only make us wiser.
I have already learned a great deal from listening to other people's
perspectives on the findings, and I look forward to our reflecting on
this new knowledge as a community.
In the 157 years since MIT's founding, we have often celebrated William
Barton Rogers for his creative vision as an educator and his tenacity in
pushing to establish MIT. With this new evidence, and our ongoing
commitment to learn more about the links between the institution of
slavery and technical institutions like MIT, today we must start
thinking together about how to tell a more complete version of our
L. Rafael Reif, President"
Are they serious? I mean, if some history major -- and they only "sort of" have a History Department there, not the same way liberal-arts schools do -- wanted to do a master's thesis on that stuff, I suppose that would be OK. But what did anyone think the outcome of this effort was going to be?
Now, Dr. Reif, whom I actually have met and like, is not a native-born American; he is from Venezuela (and presumably happy not to be there now). So he may not be completely aware, but slavery has been illegal in the USA for 155 years. We do not have slaves, nor did our grandparents and great-grandparents. [OK, there's one exception, as President John Tyler, who detested slavery but owned slaves, still has two living grandchildren, even though he was president in the early 1840s. But I digress.]
More importantly, before 1863, in half the nation and certainly in Massachusetts, slavery was, in fact, legal. It wasn't good, mind you, but it was legal. So the fact that W. B. Rogers, the founder of MIT in 1861, owned "six human beings as slaves", may make the ownership contemptible by 2018 standards, but it was not only common but perfectly legal at the time. Good men actually owned slaves, Dr. Reif; it is only the left that insists that we apply contemporary morality to people 200 years since, and tear down their monuments as if they never did any good.
Across the main entrance to the Institute, at 77 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the very old stone I walked under in the 1960s and 1970s has etched under the university name, the words "WILLIAM BARTON ROGERS, FOVNDER", in the old-style rendering. That, friends, is a monument to the single action of Dr. Rogers that actually is relevant to MIT -- whatever he did or didn't do prior to coming to Greater Boston is not, despite what Dr. Reif says, part of telling a "more complete version of our history" but part of his.
I do not know what it says about my alma mater that, not only did they find it necessary to do all this inane research as a historical project, but that they felt the need to disseminate it in the email above, as if it actually matters to alumni. The mission of MIT in 2018 has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not a guy before MIT was founded -- OK, "fovnded" -- held slaves, as was legal to do at the time he did.
I want to hear that they're doing hot-spit research up there, and our professors are uncovering the secrets of the universe, and developing technology that advances our lives and collective knowledge, building great buildings and infrastructure, curing disease and enhancing life. That, friends, is worth an email to the troops. Whether the Institute's founder held slaves years before coming to Boston, or beat his wife, or spanked his son, or stepped on a cockroach before MIT was a gleam in his eye, well, that may interest you, but I couldn't care less.
Worst of all -- What do they propose to do with this information? Do you think the left -- and this is a university campus, remember -- is going to let them just document all that and move on? Yeah, sure they will. I guarantee you that before the end of the year, either that inscription in stone is jack-hammered off the face of the entrance, or there will at the least have been a huge movement by Antifa to make that happen.
And we can thank the idiocy of those who think that it was a really, really good idea to do all that at a university level.
But I will probably take my diploma down from the wall if they do. And as if I even have to say it, I think slavery was really bad, too.
But that's my born-in-1951 morality.
Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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